By Barbara D'Amato
In grade school, high school, even college, I read fiction without much—or maybe any—sense of the structure that supported it. Even when I was lucky enough to take a course with Vladimir Nabokov, who led us to focus on details, rather than just coast along enjoying the events, I don’t think I had any sense of structure. That didn’t come until I started trying to write.
Structure and narrative technique. In structure and technique James M. Cain and Agatha Christie are very much alike. Not in content, I suppose, although you could make an argument that several of Christie’s villains are like Frank.
As Libby Hellmann mentioned in an earlier post, The Postman Always Rings Twice was the one-conference one-book choice at Magna cum Murder last week in Muncie. I hadn’t read Postman in many, many years and remembered nothing about it. I was surprised to see Christie’s technique in it.
For example, it is told mostly through dialogue, as are Christie’s novels. Both authors are far more “show, don’t tell” than was most fiction of the period.
The sentences are direct, using nothing that a friend of mine used to call “fancy writin.’” Cain can be lyrical in the accumulation of sentences, but like Christie doesn’t go in for Proustian length or complexity.
Or elaborate scene setting. Like Christie, Cain gives you only as much setting as you need. It has been said about Christie that she never includes a scene just for atmosphere or padding. Every scene advances the plot. Cain too.
Both writers are deceptively plain and forthright. Robert Barnard has said about Christie that her writing seems simple, and yet is very subtle. Both authors are so declarative that the reader takes the information as simply true, a useful deception in Christie’s puzzles.
Christie believed a novel should be capable of being read in one day. Cain’s novels can be gobbled in an evening.
James M. Cain and Agatha Christie, siblings under the skin? There’s a scary thought for Halloween.